Houston, we have an opportunity.
This is the attitude of Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier as the district embarks on an effort to turn around 20 low-performing schools. The turnaround effort—dubbed Apollo 20—is unique in that it's adopting many principles seen in successful charter schools and applying them to this urban district of over 200,000 students. Partnering with Harvard University economics professor Roland Fryer, HISD embraced many tenets proven to increase student achievement, including more time in class, data-driven instruction, additional tutoring, and creating a culture of high expectations. HISD is tackling nine middle and high schools in the 2010 academic year and will transform 11 elementary schools marked as low-performing in 2011.
"We needed to do some creative things to broach these issues," says Greg Meyers, HISD school board president, referring to the district's dropout rates and achievement gaps. "Politically, some of these things are hard, but when you look at what's in the best interest of the children it becomes a lot easier."
The Apollo 20 effort, which became finalized in spring 2010, will tack on an hour to each school day as well as five additional days at the end of the year. Students in grades 6 and 9 will have tutors to prepare them for high-level math courses, while the remaining middle and high school students will be required to take a double dose of either reading or math. According to Fryer, these are proven methods used in successful charter and urban districts. Fryer is the CEO of the Educational Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University. "We're data geeks," says Meyers. "Data will paint a picture as far as the initiative you need to plow forward."
HISD replaced all principals and then evaluated all teachers with a value-added measure at the initial nine schools undergoing reform. Ultimately, 169 teachers were replaced with new applicants, many of whom were from the Teach for America program. Applications for math tutoring positions flooded in, says Meyers, from everyone from postgraduates to retired NASA engineers.
"We're creating a culture of no excuses," says Grier. "We want to see every kid on grade level, no dropouts, and all of them go to college." Grier affirmed that no money had been taken from other schools in the district and that funding for the project came from state grants, contract renegotiations made by the school board, and private contributions. The district's goal is to reach $7 million in funding.
Apollo 20 has garnered the attention of charter school leaders nationwide, including Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone. Canada flew to Houston in August to applaud the district and community for both the scope and magnitude of this reform work.
"When we see the success of this program it will be replicated in the rest of the district and, hopefully, the country," says Meyers.
Jeremy Beard, Apollo 20 improvement officer, notes that the announcement of the Apollo 20 effort didn't come without some hesitation from the community. "We have a sense of urgency, so there was some resistance in terms of the timing," says Beard. "I think, though, when they see the results they'll see it's not a punishment. We're changing the trajectory of students."